An overdue Valentine: The underappreciated Takanori Nishikawa

Some artists have been around for so long that it’s easy to take them for granted, their existence a ubiquitous modern convenience, like airplanes or light bulbs. And their origin stories seem so irrelevant, that they hardly seem worth questioning; like Moses floating on a riverbed, their delivery seems inevitable, a gift from the music gods that simply emerged one day among the cattails. Since they’ve always been around, it feels like they always will, and so it becomes easy to let interesting work slip through the cracks. Takanori Nishikawa can seem like that sometimes, each new release like a routine dental check-up — ah yes, it’s that time again — but in reality, he has done a lot of good, ground-breaking work, constantly reinventing his look (if maybe not his sound) with each release, and with some side-projects that still seem a tad ahead of their time, just a bit like they got swept under the rug of a household name whom by that point, was dismissed as a bit of a joke, and a little bit of a has-been.

In Taylor Swift’s Netflix documentary, Miss Americana, the singer laments how often women must reinvent themselves to stay relevant and interesting, especially as they age and are sentenced to “an elephant graveyard by the time they’re 35.” One would imagine Takanori Nishikawa, born in a country where the turnover rate for idols can cause vertigo, was introduced to the concept of reinvention at a young age and instead found his raison d’etre, a kind of freedom that he saw less as chains and more as the liberation to experiment and explore, a way to keep things fresh when they seemed stagnant. The singer has been evolving since he found a receptive audience, almost with each single, and he certainly didn’t limit it to the people with whom he worked.

In the beginning

Takanori Nishikawa began his career in the early 1990s in a visual-kei band, before getting his first big break when he teamed up with Asakura Daisuke. This fortuitous meeting led to the formation of T.M.Revolution, short for Takanori Makes Revolution. The purpose of the name was to include all of the musical creators who contributed to make Nishikawa one of the most successful male solo artists of the late 90s (and we know how scarce and coveted those are today). He scored his first #1 album on the Oricon with 1998’s triple joker, and celebrated in style by releasing one of the most fantastically trippy J-pop music videos of all time for his next single “HOT LIMIT,” in an outfit that has become so iconic, it now has its own homages and gross figurines, though it has also made him the tail-end of many jokes (which he luckily seems to take in good-humored stride). Till then, Nishikawa was increasingly, and understandably, relegated to the otaku-zone: occasionally, his work was peppered with slightly darker content, like “Slight faith,” and “AQUALOVERS ~ DEEP into the night,” but mostly his songs took on the often highly dramatic air of shounen animation, an amalgamation of the genre’s staple sounds – bright, speedy rock music with lyrical content that reflected the target audience: staying strong, moving forward, never giving up, and tapping into your inner power.

And as the music became more dramatic and anime-adjacent, his look became accordingly more cartoonish. Quasi-cos-play began to feature heavily into the way his work was marketed, from the jungle-animal-aesthetic of “WILD RUSH” (used to promote Teressa Jungle Jungle hair-care products), to “Burnin’ X’mas,” where he dressed as a kind of Dollar Tree-fashion Father Christmas for the jacket photo and promo appearances. The cover of his 1999 album, the force, featured the singer in two opposing looks — lounging in a hyper-flat fantasy Eden, abundant with fruit and birdsong, and a sly, skull-bearing demon. This very Shelley Duval’s Faerie Tale Theatre-production was just a taste of the visual components Nishikawa envisioned for himself and his music. But the singer seemed bored, and when pop stars get stuck in a rut, there’s one surefire way to spice things up.

It was around this time that he first put T.M.Revolution on hold to once again team up with old pal Asakura Daisuke for the end of genesis T.M.R.evolution turbo type D, or TMR-e, project. A one-off, this more moody, atmospheric music didn’t hit it off as much the duo hoped, and they soon parted ways. The diversion put a bit of a stumble in Nishikawa’s step, and he took a few years to regain his footing, releasing mostly bland, safe rock music after 2000’s incredible opus progress. As he rooted around for traction back in the world of anime, which had continued to explode with new talent like Nami Tamaki and Nana Mizuki, even as his peers began falling to the wayside (shout out to anyone who remembers and appreciates Two-Mix), he tried on a few new personae: that of stateside crossover with 2003’s coordinate, television emcee on beloved music show Pop Jam (RIP), and finally, nostalgia-bait with a slew of best-ofs and self-cover albums.

abingdon boys school

But one of his greatest creative outlets was the short-lived side-project abingdon boys school. The band, which consisted of T.M.Revolution members SUNAO (guitar), Shibasaki Hiroshi (guitar and principal composing), and Kishi Toshiyuki (synths, programming, composing), formed in 2005, and named themselves after the real-life Abingdon School located in Oxfordshire, England. Of course, Nishikawa never leaves things at a 5 when he can take it to 10, so the group went all in, dressing up in the uniforms of boys decades younger (the members were all in their mid-30s when the group formed), and posing next to vintage sports equipment and British automobiles in press material. This would all be a kind of cute lark if the music wasn’t a jump in quality from anything T.M.R. had been coming up with in the last few years. Not only that, but the cos-play angle was a bit novel for an all-male band[1]: with the startling number of J-pop girl groups marketed wearing school uniforms and other straight-male fantasy costumes (French maids, flight attendants), it could leave audiences wondering where the male equivalents were. Nishikawa seemed destined to fill this gap with what was now a long history of subversive, highly-stylized stage looks. Aside from the requisite make-up-heavy groundwork laid by visual-kei bands and the like, who pulled from vintage gothic-horror fashion movements that reflected the counter-cultural ethos and heavy music more than their implied servility to an audience (I would exclude a handful of artists, Gackt for example, who were also genuinely radical), there were few all-male groups that reflected the sartorial diversity of options for male performers, particularly in relation to their audience.

The only difference here, was that, being all-male, abingdon boys school, despite, and let me repeat this, being 30-year-olds wearing school uniforms, was never sexualized the way that female groups like AKB48 were, for which only one reason is that this look was chosen, rather than necessarily thrust upon them by the demands of a male-consumer driven market — it was an option, not necessarily a requisite, like their counterparts. Nishikawa was simply lucky in this sense — as long as he continued to play the game, he got away with it, without having his vision and music questioned or devalued by what he was wearing. Which is important when you think about how great abingdon’s music was.

Unlike the poppier, kid-friendly rock of Nishikawa’s early work, their music was louder, heavier, and darker, though still buffeted by Nishikawa’s signature resounding vibrato. Many of the songs were about having been treated badly by exes, or being unable to move on from broken relationships. They expressed angst, frustration, and even anger, all soundtracked to a propulsive wall of guitar feedback that only got more interesting as the singles piled up. abingdon boys school released their first self-titled album in 2007, drawing largely from Western hard rock and nu metal influences filtered through the inescapable J-rock major-chord cadence of bands like GLAY and L’arc~en~Ciel. Unlike many of T.M.R.’s songs, these were riff-heavy, and less concerned with adding a touch of symphonic grandeur, though pinches of those occasionally peeped out from corners like vigilant reminders of their origins.

The band released their follow-up album in 2010, their last, and though it did as well as their debut, they soon stopped releasing original material, only reuniting as a live band to play local rock festivals. Indeed, they just played a casual set at INAZUMA ROCK FES. in 2019, for which you’ll notice one glaring omission right off the bat: the absence of their trademark school uniforms. Perhaps it’s their age, or time itself, or the atmosphere of the festival, but it’s one gimmick that seems to have fallen to the wayside, a performance no longer required, stuck in the photo studios that forever captured and left us with one brief moment of an impeccable, Japanese rock band clothed in the gimmicky uniforms of those far younger than they were. It’s an interesting rewind from a man whose whole career is practically based on playing a part. But as they are now, they can be agenda-less, T-shirt wearing rock stars like their  too-cool-to-try-too-hard peers.

Still serving looks

Since the side-project’s demise (or not — do these performances mean there’s hope for a new abs album?[2]), Nishikawa has continued to release music, now notably, and finally, releasing under his own name. He also returned to creating novel looks and reinventing for his albums, releasing concepts like the jacket covers for UNDER:COVER 2 (itself a series of albums that musically re-envisions old hits) where he dressed in homage to various iconic female pop stars like Madonna, Amy Winehouse, and Katy Perry. Of particular note is the absence of underlying cruelty in these photos, the kind that usually accompany depictions where a man-dressed-as-a-woman is played for laughs to emphasize just how silly women are: though other photos of him do play up the hyper-feminine, commercialized form of womanhood, it comes off as sincere and fun, and, while still being used to sell a product, lacks any sort of punchline — it is presented as just another way Nishikawa wants to express himself — really, it is astounding how low these flew under the radar. Of course, with his body of work now looking like a long line of clues, this also prompted several questions by devoted fans and the general public about whether or not Nishikawa would, could, or even should confirm or deny his sexuality.

Yet it’s not just Nishikawa — we can look at a slew of pop stars, most notably my pick for our current great male solo singer, TAEMIN, whose androgyny is part of what fuels his whole career. It is not my place or intention to speculate on the private lives of entertainers who choose to neither confirm nor deny publicly for whatever reasons, reasons they are more than entitled to, but there are undeniably a number of men and women in K- and J-pop groups who are gay, trans, queer, etc., who, as long as they continue performing their assigned roles, reap the rewards of the system, both for themselves and their entertainment companies. This is not an accusation: again, there are many reasons to side-step inquiry, among which may involve the safety of self, family and friends, reputation, and careers, and to the livelihoods of giant corporations with many employees and share-holders, that go into these decisions. This is totally beyond the scope of this essay, but it would be remiss not to acknowledge the specter that hovers over this entire essay and the East-Asian (and Western) entertainment industry.

What is apparent, however, is that Takanori Nishikawa is fearless, and that he has done valuable, innovative work for an audience of all gender and sexual orientations. In choosing to just be himself and lead with an artistic vision that often falls outside the box, both musically and visually, he has done what only few in the J-pop industry have done before him. And still Nishikawa’s work is not done, having just released his first official solo album, Singularity, which dropped last year with a Photoshop-heavy, cyborg-inspired cover. The cyborg concept seems almost redundant for him at this point, but it’s nice to see that he is still inspired and having fun, rather than letting age dictate his level of taste or willingness to continue challenging norms. Despite reinvention being a sort of harness on celebrities, and it certainly is when forced upon or unwanted, pop stars like Nishikawa seem to thrive on it, giving audiences decades of interesting, novel looks and concepts that question everything from how men and women should look and dress, to the gender binary and double standard of the idol system. As an ever-present figure and cultural mainstay, his sometimes-groundbreaking work in the industry has largely gone under the radar: ignored, dismissed, shrugged off, or treated as a passing joke. One can only hope that one day, the disservice will be corrected and Nishikawa can get his due recognition as a creative artist, just like his biggest influence, Prince. Thirty years into his career, he might just be as omnipresent, and forgettable, as bands like Southern All Stars or Mr. Children, but it’s important not to take for granted, or forget, trailblazing icons like Takanori Nishikawa.

1 After decades of seeing (and admittedly, using) the phrase “all-girl band” as a reference to the “all-male band” as default, I just love when I get to use the phrase all-male band instead.

2 abingdon boys school is the one project of his that I wish we would see more of — there was just something about those particular four guys in a room that seemed to bring out the magical, musical alchemy of J-rock, both visually and aurally, that for a brief moment in time, re-framed both the genre and Nishikawa’s career; abs3, please.

[ All images original scans, except for those credited to here, here, here, and here. ]

January 2020: Highlights

As expected, maybe due to the sheer amount, the majority of music released at any given time in any genre is either average or forgettable. There are, sometimes, hopefully, less than we’d like but still, a few that end up being excellent. But if they can’t all be excellent, they can at least be interesting. Whether or not any of that music manages to avoid the trap of being derivative or just plain bad, it gets people thinking and talking, and that is, by far, one of the greatest by-products of the relentless pursuit of excellence. So let’s dive into some of the interesting releases of January 2020, with perhaps a smattering of excellent or excellent-in-training among them.

Shingo Katori: 20200101
(2020.01.01)

Former SMAP-member Shingo Katori is no stranger to collaborations, having released one-offs with several fellow J-poppers during his time in the mega-successful boy band, most notably with Tomohisa Yamashita on the short-lived, but fun, project THE MONSTERS in 2012. But now that SMAP is no longer, he’s free to indulge in a full-length project, and I really hope the first-day-of-the-new-year release date is a flex signaling his intent to pursue this type of thing full-time in the next decade — so says Takuya Kimura, too, but no one is feigning surprise over the music of Go with the Flow, a literal parody of safe J-pop. Meanwhile, Katori’s album is filled with borderline bizarre collaborations with artists ranging from TeddyLoid to SCHA DARA PARR to AINA THE END of idol-group BiSH (the BiSH members have been getting around, though, so maybe that’s not notable). As you can imagine from such a varied roster of guests, the album is musically all over the place, its central thesis being Katori himself, who brings a surprising sense of wonder and delight to these tracks that run the gamut from J-rap to disco. This box-of-chocolates approach is the last thing I expected to be hearing and enjoying during the first week of 2020, and is all the more welcome knowing the alternative was probably a Go with the Flow. Katori has set a new bar for SMAP solo albums: good luck clearing this one boys.

YOUNHA: UNSTABLE MINDSET
(2020.01.06)

Who is Younha? This is a bad question to be asking in 2020, both of a singer who has been quite prolific for the last fifteen years, releasing a large amount of albums in both Korean and Japanese, and for someone I’ve somehow never even heard of until now. Personal shame aside, UNSTABLE MINDSET is the sequel EP to 2019’s STABLE MINDSET, though it’s hard-pressed to form any immediately obvious correlation outside of the linked cover art. Acoustic, indie-sounding ballads of K-pop are my Achilles heel, the Korean genre I am least interested in and most likely to avoid, so maybe it’s not surprising this one didn’t register. But I guess the slow rollout of January releases had this one rising to the top in a way it never would have in June or July. There’s all the usual hallmarks of this subgenre, not least the devastatingly heartfelt vocal performances, but most of all, it is gentle, just the type of music to open a new year with. Going back to hear some of her earlier releases hasn’t inspired me to continue looking into the singer, or anticipate future work, but I like the unexpectedness of how this one turned out, how there’s always room to be surprised, and how one of the least exciting months in K-pop on record can make you appreciate even the small things.

Selena Gomez: Rare
(2020.01.10)

I’ve already written a bit about Rare, the first great pop album of the year, but that doesn’t mean it has left me entirely. No, none of the hooks require more than a few chews to digest, but it has got me reconsidering the references I dropped to Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande. Pop stars mining their personal lives for hit songs is nothing new, but it does make me wonder if everyone would have been as interested in an album that didn’t indulge in obvious nods to exes and personal struggle. We live in an era where everyone, even grandma, wants you to check out their very important, personal-brand curated Twitter, fashioning drama out of every mundane breakfast known to humanity. Would this album have felt like such an event if it steered clear of finger-pointing and back-clapping? If it refused to give fans and hungry audiences exactly what it wanted? Is it possible to create an album that’s not so personal, yet universal? Does anyone want to listen to an album like that? Is it cheating to walk upon the bridge laid by the paparazzi you complain about, if the story you told and responded to didn’t need overt explanations because it was assumed, by the foundation they planted, that we already know about Pete Davidson and Mac Miller and Joe Alwyn and a kidney transplant? I don’t know! But I do know it didn’t make Halsey’s album any more listenable, so there’s clearly skill involved in pulling it off successfully.

Poppy: I Disagree
(2020.01.10)

Poppy has left the world scratching its head: there are plenty of stereotyped “millennial” artists now flourishing in the music business (Billie Eilish, Kim Petras, anyone making overt homages to Y2K culture), but none as Internet-savvy as Poppy, who has fashioned her entire brand on being a weird hodgepodge of social media and “shock” culture, the type of thing that is giving me Dark Web vibes when it’s not making me wonder if “Concrete” is the first actual American J-pop song I’ve ever heard. It’s not all a success, as the vocals and lyrics rarely reflect the instrumentation, which mostly invokes a quasi-experimental meets industrial, nu-metal spirit. Still, I can’t shake this one, and I keep returning to it: it feels a bit like being given pieces to several different puzzles and asked to both separate and construct them, and I for one, knowing the final picture might not result in a genuine accomplishment, am having a good time putting it all together.

Eminem: Music To Be Murdered By
(2020.01.17)

Controversy aside, I wasn’t expecting anything from a new Eminem album (the last time I noticed Eminem was seventeen years ago when he starred in a weirdly successful film that made an actual Academy-Award winner out of him), so this was a nice change from the usual Billboard-Hot-100-rap, the Top 40 being as far as my curiosity and exposure to the genre takes me, and what you hear there is mostly the rattling hi-hats of trap. It’s almost like looking into a fun house mirror, a brief reminder of why almost everyone I knew in sixth grade had memorized the words to “My Name Is” (because there were only two music videos being requested and played on The Box, and it was this or Aerosmith’s “Holy in My Soul,” that’s it, for like three years). Actually, Tom Breihan summed up what I found most moving about this album: “the thing that really sets Music To Be Murdered By apart […] is the way it flaunts Em’s obvious and overwhelming love of rap music.” And later, “the Eminem of this album sounds present and focused. He seems to love rap music again. That’s something.” Something is not to be scoffed at when you expected nothing. Trim off the dead weight (the Ed Sheeran song, definitely, but like five other tracks, too) and you’ve got something that feels close to victorious.

Sumire Uesaka: NEO PROPAGANDA
(2020.01.22)

Technically a seiyuu, Uesaka has cultivated a unique brand of off-the-wall idol-pop that is mostly due to songwriters and producers, though that doesn’t exclude her from the creative equation. In addition, she’s the perfect vehicle for the poly-tempos and speed shifts that weave throughout her poppy, techno, sound effect-heavy onomatopoeia odysseys. She fell back on a more traditional J-pop sound with NO FUTURE VACANCES, but NEO PROPAGANDA boasts song writers both old and new like Kenji Ohtsuki, Ryohei Shima of The Dresscodes, and MOSAIC.WAV who have imbue the album with all the hallmarks that have defined her sound from rolling Rs and high-pitched shrieks, to gonzo interpretations of Russian culture, all wrapped up in highly-stylized song titles like “Bon♡Kyu♡Bon wa Kare no Mono♡” and “Run Fast, Rasputin!” Unpredictability would make it an exhausting trek to the end of this album if it wasn’t so much fun; I can’t help but root for this colorful collection of odds-and-ends.

The Weeknd: “Blinding Lights”
(2020.01.21)

As someone with mixed, but mostly positive, feelings about Starboy, I was pleased with both “Heartless” and “Blinding Lights” when they were released just before the new year, the former which had, and continues to have, a ton of repeat value for me. These two songs are the well-known yin-and-yang of Tesfaye, the “Starboy” and the “In the Night,” the dark, brooding self-flagellating nightmare-scape of indie mixtapes, and the groovy, darkwave pop star who flirts with fame and Max Martin-level stardom so at least he can dance while it destroys him (is there anybody more consistently conflicted about their fame in music videos as Tesfaye and like, Ayumi Hamaski?). “Blinding Lights” finally got a video release, this one both a sequel and car advertisement that illustrates the previous point perfectly. Both songs have been getting some unique performance visuals on late night, the first when “Heartless” was performed on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert with a very cool, very re-watchable, very vertigo-inducing stage set-up, and then “Blinding Lights,” both on Colbert again, with box and audience participation, and seemingly immediately after he stumbled off the streets of the music video, on Jimmy Kimmel Live! I love when an artist goes all in on a concept, and as the term “era” (as in Starboy-era, and Like a Virgin-era) has been plucked from the trade pubs and into the tweets of the casual-listening public, I hope we get an album announcement soon, so we can put a decent name to this deliciously decadent-in-Vegas, sinfully-red jacket era and hashtag it immediately.

CY8ER: “Renai REALITY-sho”
(2020.01.22)

The electro-pop boom has long since bust, but believe it or not, there was a glorious time when Yasutaka Nakata ruled J-pop and nobody could go two weeks without some official collaboration or production credit or eager knock-off fighting for prime headphone real estate. But it’s been a while since Nakata was able to pull off anything as game-changing and seminal as his early work with Perfume, MEG, Ami Suzuki, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, or his own passion project with capsule. Still, that laundry list gives you an idea of how prolific he was and it’s not something any one can easily dismiss after a few years of disappointments. I might be losing hope of anything interesting from Perfume and Pamyu, but I see a cred with his name and my heart still skips a beat. “Renai REALTIY-sho,” for idol-group CY8ER, is a very safe and comfortable space for him. It’s the bread-and-butter of Nakata-pop, that while bereft of any depth, does give off extra thick slices of the year 2008. It’s a welcome respite from some of the forgettable, slower-paced music he’s been putting out with Perfume, and it fits CY8ER like a VR glove. Unfortunately, the video, which does have some really cool visuals, is an exploitative mess, and this pretty-good-but-nothing-special track is the highlight of their new album Tokyo. Still, it was nice, just for a few minutes, to be transported in musical time, and I hope others continue to keep their minds open to Nakata, as I believe that he is still capable of surprises. But mostly, I hope that the increasing staleness of his particular sound, like that of Tetsuya Komuro’s in the early 2000s, doesn’t hamper his ability to adapt and adjust, or discourage him from putting in the effort to grab new listeners.

LatuLatu: Mangekyou ETERNITY
(2020.01.22)

If rock is dead, I’m not sure how to even think about J-rock, which sometimes seems plagued with an identity crisis, trapped between visual-kei inspired anime-pop and indie math rock. At the wayside has fallen the type of rock music that showed both how technical and how fun the genre could be. Bands like B’z and hide with spread beaver, who didn’t take themselves too seriously, who appreciated a big hook and a satisfying riff, and didn’t suffer the type of fools who objected to chart-appreciation. This is not a lament on the State of J-rock Today, nor is LatuLatu (not 100% on the romanization here, is it LatouLatou? I’ve yet to see it in its native habitat) here to save the genre, but boy did I have more fun listening to Mangekyou ETERNITY than I have listening to J-rock in a long time. The group, which might have made my best debut list last year if I had any idea who they were two months ago, were billed by HMV as a “desktop rock unit” that gained some fame on TikTok. They released their first official single in September and their first mini-album this month, which has gotten a bit of much-needed press. If you like ONEOKROCK, you won’t find anything objectionable here, though note that the comparison applies more to the energy and earnestness of this set than ethos. Neither rock nor J-rock is dead or has ever been dead, but it’s always nice when something comes along that feels like it could breathe some fresh air into the lungs of a sometimes-anemic genre.

SixTONES: “Imitation Rain”
(2020.01.22)

The last weekly #1 for the Oricon chart this month is a doozy, the type of thing that makes me wonder who talked whom into bringing this into existence. The double A-side single featuring the debut of two Johnny’s groups, SixTONES (pronounced “stones” because the alphabet is meaningless) and Snow Man, were dropped last year, and I remember noting Snow Man’s super fun, super K-pop approach (yes, it is 2020 and J-pop is still trying to Frankenstein pieces of K-pop) not only in sound, but in production, styling, visuals, all of it. It’s nothing special, but it was different and I liked it. I would call it a success. But SixTONES’s “Imitatation Rain” is actually doing better on social media, and after finally watching the video I have no idea why: it’s like one giant step backward. The ridiculous over-the-top emoting, drama, rainfall, the spoken interlude, it all made sense when I saw the production credit for Yoshiki, X Japan’s tireless and now inescapable leader. You can go back and pick out every single Yoshiki-ism in this: the piano, the whiny, soap-opera monologue (I can’t resist, here is a sample, and try to pretend you haven’t already heard this at the end of every X Japan ballad since 1988: “What’s the meaning of life, what’s the point of getting it right? / Cause’s everything’s fake, everybody breaks. […] Breaking down, I am breaking down / peace of mind is shutting down”), the entire catalog of his favorite English vocabulary (rain, life, dreams, endless — the only one missing, I think, is crucify and scar, but I’m going off of the shortened-PV version). There is even a point at the end of the video where one of the guys plays air piano! Air piano! As choreography! I wish I could like this because I love the idea of established producers taking their talent and tackling genres outside of their comfort zone, but this is the opposite of where Johnny’s should be taking their Reiwa debuts (among other actions they should strongly reconsider), and the fact that it made #1 was purposely inevitable, rather than indicative. I’m not writing this group off just yet, but needless to say, Snow Man wins this round. I hope someone handed Yoshiki his paycheck and politely declined any further contact, but a #1 doesn’t bode well.

Dua Lip: “Physical”
(2020.01.31)

What completed Dua Lipa’s transformation into a bonafide pop star? Was it “Don’t Start Now,” and its dance floor-therapy music video? Was it the blonde hair? The homages to past pop movements stacking up like dominoes, as if to absorb the essence of all of the past greats through musical osmosis, from the Spice Girls to Kylie Minogue and now all the way back to Olivia Newton-John? Her utter commitment to the trendy nostalgia-for-the-90s Look, from performance to red carpet? Dua Lipa was great when she was just Dua Lipa, but Future Nostalgia promises something bigger and better, a Dua Lipa with enormous ambition and a record company that knows what it’s doing. This is her Oops…! I Did It Again moment, a cataclysmic pop event that Warner is drawing out in excruciating, exquisite anticipation. It’s going to be a long, hard road to April 3, but so far, I have no reason to believe it won’t be worth the wait.

Selena Gomez’s Rare: Watch her go

In many ways, Selena Gomez is a textbook pop star: she has been trained for celebrity and stardom since childhood, has had a slew of mega-famous boyfriends and personal drama that has kept her in the public eye and the tabloids, is beautiful in a way normal people are not, and despite not possessing spectacular vocal ability, has a talented team producing amazing, trendy pop music behind the scenes of her career that expertly minimizes flaws and maximizes strengths. We got a glimpse of it in her first solo, non-Hollywood Records release, Revival, back in 2015, and now we finally get Rare.

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 love life, re: Justin Bieber, mostly, but also The Weeknd’s Abel Tesfaye, 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,” a casual word she tossed out on Jimmy Fallon, but a loaded buzz-word among her and fellow entertainer/close friend Taylor Swift. But they’re also a genuinely skillful set of hooks, programmed to keep the ear worms coming. It’s the album we were going to get from Camila Cabello’s Romance, until it most definitely wasn’t, and done only the way Gomez can do. As Chris DeVille wrote in his The Week in Pop column for January 9, it is the song writers and producers like veterans Justin Tranter and Julia Michaels (even Bebe Rexha has a cred on “Crowded Room,” though I was disappointed not to see a single mention of Max Martin — you can’t win them all) who are the heroes here, with  the “writing and production […] smartly catered to the subtle, breathy vocals that best serve her voice.”

Musically, it doesn’t feel as thematically on point as the lyrics, but the tension and slower pacing of the majority of the songs (“Vulnerable,” for example, and “People You Know,” the song nobody seems to like but me) make up for some of the weaker tracks like “Ring” and “Kinda Crazy.” The Target-exclusive edition comes with an additional five tracks, mainly all the feats and collabs mentioned earlier released over the last few years in the run-up to Rare, like “It Ain’t Me” and “Bad Liar.” They’re inessential and don’t belong on the album proper, so it feels right to tack them on optionally as bonus content; the “narrative” feels here and now, while the older tracks feel like shed skin, a form and size that no longer fit. Instead, Rare is both a telling and re-telling, a study and a re-examination, of fresh pain on old wounds. Scabs over scar tissue. It feels honest, but most importantly for a pop star like Gomez who is playing in the Grande leagues, it feels authentic, a collection of hits you can bop to and empathize with.

Rare is a strong opening to 2020 and it’s doubly appreciated to have it during a week and month that usually sees very little consequential work being released in any genre. And like any really good pop album, it should have the strength to at least get us through, what? The rest of this month?

Top ten East Asian pop/rock albums of 2019

When Johnny Kitagawa passed away this summer, it was accompanied by a muted, collective sigh of relief, rather than the quiet, mournful sigh at the passing of a legend. I don’t know, maybe people loved this guy, but it seems as if in his last days, Kitagawa was more like the crusty, embarrassing grandpa nobody likes but everyone has to put up with, wielding the iron fist of tradition, opposed to any and all business strategies that might take him and his mega-successful company into the present, let alone the future. On July 9, you could practically see balloons being released into the sky: happy days were here again. Like dominoes, the country’s most successful producer of boy bands began falling into the warm embrace of social media. YouTube accounts sprung up, celebrities appeared on Instagram, wow, album covers weren’t immediately wiped off of the face of the Internet. Meanwhile, Arashi began their Olympic campaign in earnest, uploading videos to YouTube and singles onto the streaming platform Spotify and a member’s nuptials was announced with an eye-roll, merely confirming an open secret.

As far as defining the capabilities and limits of the last decade of J-pop, Johnny Kitagawa’s death is as momentous as any event; it’s sheer lucky coincidence that it happened around the same time the Heisei era ended and the new era, Reiwa, began. Two monoliths passing the torch, one in peace, one fighting the whole way down.

The rest of the musical year has been rather predictable, with the expansion of the 48/46 groups, Gesu no Kiwami no Otome.-clones riding the success of the group’s low-key J-rock, plenty of mediocre solos, and the demise of many more of your favorite idol groups (including E-girls in 2020, which I am not emotionally prepared to discuss at this time). Across the sea, tragedy returned to K-pop once again, claiming the life of more beloved performers, while at the same time, K-pop’s star continued to rise overseas, led by YouTube-trailblazers like BLACKPINK and TWICE, and Billboard-favorites BTS and NCT, while rookies continued to churn out tepid debuts and earnest comebacks. And yet, as always, there was so much music to wade through, that is wasn’t difficult to unearth hidden gems hidden among the tropical-house drops. Like a lot of music released in 2019, I would not necessarily say the year produced many J- or K-pop albums that we’ll still be talking about in a decade or two, but they kept things going moving along nicely, with a few that are worth examining in depth.

LOONA // [x x]
2019.02.19

LOONA could have been nothing more than one of the greatest K-pop marketing campaigns in history, but if so, nobody would be talking about anything more than the process, which isn’t the case. While I’ll never get over the disappointment of the phenomenal pre-debut singles never being collected into a single compilation, the group did release their first original EP, [++], in 2018, which was re-released in 2019 under the title [x x], and included six new songs, all which convey the singular, interstellar space in which LOONA lives, and it is indeed a mood. Unlike TWICE, LOONA comes off as a witchy and wise older sister: check new tracks “Butterfly,” “Curiosity,” and “Where you at,” which build on the older, faster-paced tracks. There’s a subtle brilliance to these songs, an ice-cold chill that benevolently provides as many goosebumps as it does ear worms. We’re all unworthy of a follow-up in 2020, but pray that LOONA chooses to bless us anyway.

Key // I Wanna Be
2019.03.04

SHINee just celebrated ten years since their debut last year, so it was only fitting that three of the four surviving members began prepping for their great military-service hiatus, while baby TAEMIN went off to pursue jopping with the other Korean Avengers on Ellen. Luckily, the group left behind treasures to enjoy during the break, including last year’s The Story of Light trilogy. But the greatest was Key’s solo album FACE, released in 2018, and re-packaged this past March as I Wanna Be. The re-package includes three additional tracks, among them the title track, featuring Soyeon of rookie group (G)I-DLE. This album feels like the true successor to 2015’s Married to the Music, an ode to K-pop boy bands and a testament to the pop aesthetic of SM Entertainment in a nutshell, both which are at their strongest together. The number of hooks on this record are stratospheric, and while I’m not convinced that Key is any better on his own than with his band mates, he brings the exact level of vocal enthusiasm these tracks deserve. It’s a hasty prediction, but this album should be enough to keep fans going for the next two years or so.

BAND-MAID // BAND-MAIKO
2019.04.03

Performers in the Japanese and South Korean music business (idols or otherwise) are some of the hardest working in the world, so you’ll have to excuse me if the constant mantra of Ariana Grande releasing two albums over two years doesn’t impress me much when it is has been de rigeur for a group like BAND-MAID to release a new album every year — and two in 2019. Obviously, the sort of work ethic that pushes K-pop idols to train and perform for 14 hours a day is by no means practical, safe, or just. With a group like BAND-MAID, there is also the possibility of not just physical and mental, but creative, burnout. Up until now, BAND-MAID’s releases have been on a strong, upward trajectory with each release topping the last: they have been featured in the top ten albums of the year list here for the last two years. But interestingly, it is not the late-entry CONQUEROR that makes this list, but the shorter EP released in April, BAND-MAIKO. CONQUEROR is a strong album, but it’s the first one that I haven’t been instantly taken by, and while I let that album continue to percolate and work its magic on me, I’ll let BAND-MAIKO speak for itself. As if to preempt a rut, the group changed things up for this special EP by giving a few of their signature metal hits a traditional Japanese sound, complete with taiko drums and shakuhachi flutes piping into every available space left in the production. This idea could have been a silly, ineffectual gimmick (perhaps like being forced to wear maid costumes?), more Wagakki Band-rip off than genuine novelty, but the melting of the two styles are perfect, offsetting, collaborating, and molding themselves into something just as hard and heavy, but with a unique texture. It also gives the band a chance to ditch the maid outfits and don traditional kimonos in music videos for “secret” and “Gion-cho” — I’m not sure they were any more comfortable to shoot in, but they certainly make for stunning visuals (women’s fashion  throughout history, I guess). So far, the EP has been a one-off, but I wouldn’t mind seeing this little side-experiment blossom into a regular gig. It’s a gorgeous, sweeping testament to how adaptable and open the metal genre is, and how hard BAND-MAID work every day to keep innovating and challenging expectations, while proving the band is anything but out of ideas.

Nao Toyama // Gunjou INFINITY
2019.04.03

Seiyuu solo albums are a hard sell when so many can sound nearly identical. This isn’t inherently a bad thing if that’s exactly what you’re looking for, but it can get difficult to distinguish between them all if you listen to a dozen or so a month. “All pop music sounds the same” is easily one of the laziest insults to hurl, but the older you get, the more you realize there’s nothing insulting about stating merely uninformed facts: after all, even the most manufactured idols can create alchemy with the right songwriters that produce potions that keep a cauldron bubbling throughout the year. Gunjou INFINITY seems to have hit upon that very wizardry, taking Toyama’s lithe vocals and peppy guitars to a level beyond what she hinted at on her debut album. There’s not going to be anything here for those who saw the word seiyuu and immediately turned heel, but for those still on the carousel, check the extra synths on “Action,” the traditional instrumentals woven throughout “Tomoshibi no Manimani,” and the frenetic one-two punch of “Living Dying Kissin’” that make an album like this, adrift in a sea of so many like it, stand out. Nao Toyama has been on my radar since Rainbow, but she hasn’t proven herself until now, a woman more than capable of keeping up with the Nana Muzukis of the world, if given half a chance in a fickle, over-saturated market…and several return trips for draughts of that elusive elixir.

The Dance for Philosophy // Excelsior
2019.04.05

The Dance for Philosophy have been one of the strongest indie idol-groups since their debut, releasing one quirky, vintage-inspired album after another since 2015. While it was easy to lump them in with the rest of the Tower Records-set alongside Michiru Hoshino, Negicco, and especia, The Dance for Philosophy songwriters took their inspiration from 70’s soul and funk, mixing in just a hint of City Pop for thematic relevance. The result has been adorable, dorky albums, almost too earnest for their own good. This year’s Excelsior tries its hardest to be just a but more slick, a bit more chill, but of course it’s a losing battle, and all the better for it. The group is at their best when they’re at their least cool, breaking out all the horns, cliche sparkle effects and almost-Mickey Mousing sound effects on tracks like “IT’S MY TURN,” and “FREE YOUR FESTA.” But it’s smoother tracks like “PARRHESIA” and “HEURISTIC CITY” that hit the sweet spot in-between, and luckily The Dance for Philosophy spend quite some time in this zone. It might not have all the idol bells-and-whistles of their previous albums, but it’s a more mature, albeit tiny, step forward for the group’s sound that I sincerely look forward to hearing evolve at a pace slower than evolution, all the longer to simmer and enjoy.

TWICE // Feel Special
2019.09.23

TWICE had a better year than any other K-pop girl group in 2019, and that includes Internet phenoms BLACKPINK. While the group has always been hit-or-miss for me, never achieving a level of consistency that precluded enthusiasm for comebacks, they scored three amazing releases this year, including two Korean EPs, and an original Japanese album that hit #1 on the Oricon the week of its release. It’s their second EP, Feel Special, that has stayed on heaviest rotation. From the title track on, it’s a burst of sparkling energy, with the dance-pop glitter parade hitting peak ticker-tape on the stomping triplet “Get Loud,” “Trick It,” and “Love Foolish.” The album winds down with “21:29,” the nostalgic missing piece from Seohyun’s 2017 Don’t Say No. It’s a perfect example of K-pop from a group that has released more than seven original Korean mini-albums since 2015, but who still bring enough innovation, enthusiasm, and need to prove themselves to feel like a rookie group.

BABYMETAL // METAL GALAXY
2019.10.11

BABYMETAL were mired in a bit of controversy this year, the type only surprising to those unfamiliar with the Japanese entertainment industry, but enough to derail the group’s international momentum. When Yuimetal was reported mysteriously missing from live shows, conspiracies abounded until a press release confirmed the usual story: Yui Mizuno would not be returning due to poor health. Betrayed fans punished the withholding of information by insta-damning their newer singles as inferior, lacking in the same quality and depth of their early releases. It seemed the group was doomed to the same recycle bin and sudden irrelevance as other Japanese crossovers. So imagine my surprise when I tuned in to the new album and found myself charmed and impressed. METAL GALAXY, five years removed from the group’s debut album, is their poppiest to date, relying on metal as a production style, rather than a genre. The album still soars with riffs and earnest vocals, but it’s softer, a bit more diffused around the edges, with the endearing addition of a ballad and what can only be aptly described as soaring choruses. Rest assured, there are plenty of cheeky moments sprinkled throughout, like the bubbly rap-interlude on “DA DA DANCE.” There’s a reason this album is wedged into this category and not metal: it’s as laser-focused as any idol group on this list, just with a heart worn on a spikier sleeve than most.

TAEYEON // Purpose
2019.10.28

The slow demise of Girls’ Generation, from down-one-member, to down-a-couple-members, to let’s-just-give-them-all-solos, to hmm-how-about-this-pointless-subunit is one of K-pop’s saddest horror stories. This is not to say anything of the solo releases, which for those who have opted to stay with SM Entertainment, are as top-quality as ever, and some, in fact, being astonishingly good. TAEYEON, as one of the three biggest vocal powerhouses of the group, and now the highest-selling female artist in K-pop, has been given solo opportunities since 2010, and official solo albums since 2015, when the albums started to come in earnest. Of all of these, 2017’s Voice has been the strongest collection, but Purpose has blown that album out of the water. While it doesn’t necessarily showcase TAEYEON’s vocals so much as use them in the best, and holiest, way possible, it’s a chance for TAEYEON to get some great pop songs under her belt, by way of the usual overseas heavy-weights like LDN Noise, and Dsign Music who have been behind your favorite East Asian pop songs since 2013. As usual, the music is a mix of glossy R&B influences coating sultry pop (“Ha Ha Ha (LOL)“), and the type of sad song you play on the way home from a long day of work after your exhaustion has got you brooding (“Wine“). TAEYEON is an expert at this point, ringing emotion out of every last note, and so the album feels effortless. TAEYEON might be portrayed as a bit of an ice-queen in the media, but Purpose, both cool and confident, is surprisingly warm.

Hey! Say! JUMP // PARADE
2019.10.30

It will be interesting to see how Johnny’s entertainment will grow, mature, and respond to their musical competition, now that Kitagawa has passed and the handcuffs have come off. As mentioned above, there are already massive steps being taken to join the rest of the entertainment industry in 2020, and it bodes well for the years ahead. There will surely be many great, successful, working things the company will want to hold on to as it moves forward, and one only hopes that one of those things is a rich musical history. It has taken me nearly all of the last decade to truly appreciate the particular style of J-pop that Johnny’s produces, and though I would not call myself a super-fan, and remain skeptical of most of their performing groups, it’s been a wild ride to slow down, and carefully study, understand, and appreciate what these groups offer to the genre. At its worst, they indulge in the sort of outdated, saccharine idol-pop you’d find as filler content on a CD produced in 1978 from the clearance section of Half-Price Books. At its best, it fuses vintage styles with modern production to create something fizzier and more nuanced than the individual pieces, as do one of Johnny’s most successful modern groups Hey! Say! JUMP, whose name alone now endearingly dates them. They’re all set to take over once Arashi vacates the top spot, and aside from drama with a former member who was swiftly and quietly put to sleep like a rabid dog, they seem more than capable of carrying the torch. PARADE is Johnny’s at its best: long, winding choruses, slightly-awkward rap breaks tempered by pleasing disco strings, Western-pop and EDM pop-ups, individual vocals twining into the distinctively joyous group singalongs. It can’t possibly be less-than-average compared to the intellectual records littering year-end lists over at The Ringer or Pitchfork, and it won’t win any awards for bringing anything innovative to the table, but in that way, it’s like Johnny’s itself, leaning so heavily on the personality and charisma of its stars. Perhaps that’s why so many continue to draw from this particular well, year after year, and who’s comparing it to those stuffy lists anyway?

Cosmic Girls (WJSN) // As You Wish
2019.11.19

Like TWICE, Cosmic Girls had two above-average EPs to choose from this year: the frothy soap bubbles of For the summer, a giant, shimmering, sunshine-in-a-bag collection of K-pop, tailor-made for what is still the one season of the year most likely to have you throwing caution to the wind and, if you are unlucky enough to work a 9-to-5 like the rest of us, playing hooky or gazing out the window, wishing you had the guts to do so. But it is As You Wish, their autumn entry, that brings a bit of levity to the songs that showcase how great WJSN is when they are less gimmicky, and focus on what makes them work so well as a group. Some of the same songwriters appear on these tracks, such as FULL8LOOM, but the addition of newcomers KZ, Nthonius, and B.O. add some much-needed gravity to the parade of hooks on tracks like “Iruri (As Your Wish),” “Luckitty-Cat,” and the album’s strongest banger “Badaboom,” which veers into beloved T-ara territory with its catchy, repetition of “Badabing-badabing-badaboom-yeah.” WJSN and TWICE have had a similar musical evolution, and both groups have released work this year that reflects their status as worthy contenders beyond their beginning as SNSD-clones, but WJSN has the added benefit of being the type of group you can always count on to deliver consistency in great songs and great visuals.

Honorable Mentions


Wa-suta: Cat’ch The World
TAEMIN: FAMOUS
OH MY GIRL: Fall in Love
Flower: F
SUPER☆DRAGON: 3rd Identity

Top ten pop/electronic albums of 2019

Usually, the Western pop category is the easiest list to put together, but this year proved difficult, and it was all I could do not to go on a last-minute listening binge to try and find more albums to bulk up the quality of this list. Nonetheless, despite an absence of heavyweights, and most of the great pop albums sprouting from the debut category this year, there were still some good albums released this year, as long as you aren’t looking for any game-changers.

For example, it is practically redundant to include Ariana Grande: thank u, next is an album you will be hearing a lot of during awards season next year, and for good reason. The album seems to have reached a wider audience than last year’s Sweetener, perhaps because of its dramatic, but relatable story line, or maybe because of Grande’s always immense voice and steadily maturing approach to songwriting. Max Martin still appears on the album, but his influence seems largely absent, with moody R&B taking precedence over hummable hooks. We’ve been spoiled with Grande content so it seems greedy to voice high expectations for her next project, but it’s hard not to anticipate what she will come up with next.

Other female soloists making this list include Maren Morris, who still clings to the country in her country-pop, and Lizzo’s Cuz I Love You, the breakout star of the year, but not Taylor Swift or Carly Rae Jepsen. I’ve already spoken about my ambivalence toward Lover, which has only increased the further we get from its release, but Jepsen continues to rankle me. I have listened to Dedicated many times since its release, and each time it simply fails to spark the same joy as E-MO-TION; maybe my expectations were simply too high. There were enough fun songs on the album like “Julien,” and “Now That I Found You,” to make the honorable list, but not enough to elevate it to the same playing field as its 2019 peers.

Rounding out the list we have a few male soloists, including Post Malone, who continues to fascinate and frustrate, with his almost scary instinct for hooks that work despite bearing very little melody, but whose lyrical content belies any sense of growth or intellectual curiosity. Khalid’s Free Spirit may have been a disappointment to many as a follow-up to American Teen, but I quite like the languorous vibe emanating off of this collection of nap-enhancers. As a compliment, that comes off as back-handed, but I mean it in the best possible way. There are some inexcusable inclusions on this list that I’m loathe to defend, suffice to say they surprised and delighted, and it became increasingly apparent to me as 2019 wore on that that was the best I was going to get from a pop record this year. One of these is an outlier: the Charlie’s Angels Original Soundtrack (not to be confused with its score). Normally, this list would never include soundtracks that are merely curated-collections of pop songs, but I am the lone cheerleader for this year’s fluffy iteration of Charlie’s Angels, which was produced by Ariana Grande. Immediately upon hearing this soundtrack, I knew this would be the best thing about the film, and audience and critical reaction confirms this. Grande co-executive produced this short and tidy little jewel of pop hits which is composed of original material featuring a yearbook of 2019’s most popular from Normani to Kim Petras. This film might have been dubbed Forever 21: The Movie when its trailer came out, but I can’t think of a soundtrack that better captures the roller coaster that is third-wave feminism, for better and worse. It’s not reinventing pop, breaking barriers, or changing narratives, but its bright, cheesy, inconsequential Max-Martin-penned effervescence is something I think we all needed a slice of in 2019 — and I know my 1999-self would have eaten it up. And I repeat: pickings were slim.

Ariana Grande: thank u, next // Red Soda: Decades to Midnight

Various Artists: Charlie’s Angels (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) // Nina Nesbitt: The Sun Will Come Up, The Seasons Will Change

Adam Lambert: Velvet: Side A //Lizzo: Cuz I Love You

Maren Morris: Girl // Emarosa: Peach Club

Khalid: Free Spirit // Post Malone: Hollywood’s Bleeding

Honorable Mentions


DAWN: New Breed
Carly Rae Jepsen: Dedicated
blink-182: Nine
Sarsa: Zakryj
Veronica Maggio: Fiender Är Tråkigt

Top ten metal/hard rock albums of 2019

In this, the year of our Lord 2019, I never thought I would find myself typing these words, but here we go: Rammstein created one of the best music videos of 2019. Now let me back up. The German outfit has been around for so long, it is sometimes hard to remember that there was a time when bands like Rammstein and Marilyn Manson were truly terrifying to a subset of parents and teachers. It was a different time, and as the Internet changed everything we know about religion, sex, politics, and personal boundaries, bands like these began to seem less and less important to people who now had to worry about their eight-year-old kids stumbling across hardcore porn  after clicking an innocent-looking link on a Geocities Pokemon fan site. Rammstein’s music always seemed purposely engineered to spark controversy, but by the time the group was packaging dildos with their new albums, it was all a little stale. Their low-budget videos didn’t seem so much thought-provoking or subversive, as they did a bunch of people in the active process of learning that art and taboo were not actually the same thing, and that pissing people off for the sake of it was an amateur’s game.

The music was one thing: Richard Kruspe is practically incapable of not writing a massive, chugging riff, but Till Lindemann’s message got muddled, and the band’s means of expression seemed hampered by their desire to first and foremost, provoke. Inevitably, intentions backfired after right-wing groups started co-opting their music, prompting the band to spell out their left-leaning political views and politely asking Nazis to get lost. Indeed, it’s like Rammstein has been waiting 25 years for someone with a better means of communication to corral all the interesting things they had to say in a meaningful way. That someone is Specter Berlin, and on March 28, he released “Deutschland” into the world.

Like all Rammstein videos, it is dark, violent, and makes for uncomfortable viewing. But due to the careful cinematography, its beauty makes it brutally remarkable. I cannot think of a music video that better captures what it is like to live in the ruins of a crumbling empire, of what it is like to love the freedoms and opportunities your country has given you, while knowing the truth of how those freedoms and opportunities were won. While watching those freedoms and opportunities narrow for more and more people. As Lee Seymour writes, ““Deutschland” makes clear [the band’s] intention: not to exploit or glorify, but to excoriate their homeland’s history of violent nationalism.” The video is a brief historical chronology of all of Germany’s worst moments, from the Middle Ages, to the Weimar Republic, and through two World Wars and the Iron Curtain. It does not sugarcoat, condone, or hide the atrocities committed by Germans against others and their own people (there are some great YouTube videos breaking the scenes down, for all my fellow history nerds). All this, set to words almost childlike in their simplicity, expressing the difficulty of reconciling the desire to take pride in one’s country, with that same country’s dark history. Is it possible when the future doesn’t look any brighter, when over and over again, we see that these fundamental evils have never really gone away, and return to the mainstream in almost clock-like cycles? You don’t have to be German to get it, though keeping up with current events helps. We are at a point in history when inroads are being made to rectify mistakes of the past, when responsibilities are being taken, but we are also at a point when a man who supports white supremacy lives in the White House.

These are scary times indeed, and making art of it is a tricky tightrope, one that I do not think Rammstein was capable of 15 or 10 years ago. For example, even their other recent attempts have been a bit dodgy, with follow-up song and video for “Auslander” making its point, but in a clumsy, cringey way (all you need is the shot of the butterfly being meticulously cataloged, studied and then slammed between the pages of the book — that’s it. Fin.). But “Deutschland,” both the song and video, manages to capture the shallowness, the fear, the confusion, the reckoning, the impossible reconciliation, and the unfulfilled promise of progress in a brief ten minutes. That doesn’t even begin to touch upon how great the music itself works to highlight all of these beats: the rhythmic verses, the chilly delivery of the chorus, the synths that journey in and out of the music like the red lights threaded throughout the video, connecting all of history, all of one nation’s self-contained life from the womb to outer space, while weaving in the band’s personal history through nods to past lyrics and imagery. It all works together like one great whole, like all of the world itself, self-contained by one action leading to the next, from one continent to another, like ripples on the massive timeline of world history. By the time the end credits, with its funereal take on “Sonne,” begins, as we watch one last macabre montage of devastating footage, all you can do is take one deep, collective breath and sigh, as Berlin wraps up with a mournful humble-brag of somber, haunting shots. As Leonid  Bershidsky concludes, “The discussion about the video is really about what’s bubbling close to the surface here — and about the importance of awareness, and bitter irony, in keeping the lid on.”

So is Rammstein’s self-titled the best metal album of the year? Nah. It’s bogged down by a particularly slow second half, and there are definitely other albums that have a stronger track-by-track presence, such as the critic-panned Resist by Within Temptation, one of my most-played albums of the year (I think I am the only person on this planet who didn’t hate this album). There are certainly more cerebral albums, like Atlantean Kodex’s The Course of Empire, and more fun albums like the insanely cheesy and quixotic throwback-metal of Beast in Black’s From Hell with Love. There are are more technical albums like Aephanemer’s Prokopton, and darker, comfort-haunts like Idle Hands’s Mana. They all have a place on this list, a small piece of the variety and surprises that await us in metal every year (and don’t forget to check out a few more on our debut list). But to my mind, nothing beats the enormity and accomplishment of “Deutschland,” which is why it is so disappointing to me that many had already dismissed this dinosaur of a band, due in part to their less-than-graceful past, and are missing out on one of the most honest and important musical statements of 2019.

Within Temptation: Resist // Aephanemer: Prokopton

Rammstein: Rammstein // Idle Hands: Mana

Screamer: Highway of Heroes // Dayseeker: Sleeptalk

Diviner: Realms of Time // Atlantean Kodex: The Course of Empire

Beast in Black: From Hell with Love // Black Therapy: Echoes of Dying Memories

Honorable Mentions

Riot City: Burn the Night
Stormhammer: Seven Seals
Dream State: Primrose Path
Lacuna Coil: Black Anima
Gygax: High Fantasy

Top ten original soundtracks/original scores of 2019

Like any musical microcosm, the world of film and video game scores is as niche as they come, and the fact that the music is such an integral and largely ignored part of what makes visual media work has already been documented. Is the best score one that remains unobtrusive, enhancing the visuals without taking on a solid identity of its own, or should a score cause you, at least once, to stop and think, wait, what was that? The best scores had me thinking a lot about this over the course of 2019, but I’m not the best person to answer this, especially as I continue to listen to most scores outside of their visual contexts. What makes a score satisfying for me takes place almost exclusively within the frame of the audio waves, and whether or not it stands on its own as an interesting work of music.

I was in luck: 2019 provided many scores to mull over and enjoy, without the need to spend extra time glued to a screen. There were more traditional scores, like Nathaniel Mechaly’s whimsical ode to Danny Elfman for Swoon and Martin Phipp’s The Aftermath. There were epic orchestral arrangements in the traditional style of scores of yore, from Geoff Zanelli’s Maleficent: Mistress of Evil and Hans Zimmer’s victory lap on The Lion King (the score only — I don’t care for the re-worked vocal pieces). There were modern scores for a handful of sequels, full of the kind of sound often reviled by traditionalists, like Kyle Dixon & Michael Stein’s synth-heavy work for the third season of mega-summer event Stranger Things 3, and Tyler Bates & Joel J. Richard’s even synth-heavier work on John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum, neither the best of their respective franchises, but still adept at wringing something fresh out of their third rodeos.

There were also some surprises, like Hildur Gudnadottir’s brilliant and haunting work for Todd Phillips’s Joker. Having heard and hated Gudnadottir’s work for the Grammy-Award-nominated Chernobyl, my expectations pooled somewhere in the gutter for this one, so what a shock to hear how eerie and sublime (in the traditional sense of sublime — the invoking of both fear and awe), this soundtrack was. Gudnadottir captures something ruthless, dark, and delicate about this movie and its subject, without resorting to the type of horror-movie cliches that riddle so many scores. Its simplicity makes it all the more effective, and though I’m at a loss to understand how someone who made Chernobyl could have crafted something so vastly different, I hope this bodes well for the type of variety we will see from the composer in the future.

Overall, I don’t think there were as many rich experiences as there were last year, but there was still strong material to sift through if you were willing to step out of your comfort zone and bury preconceived ideas about music for, say, television/serial programming, for which Netflix has been utilizing an amazing group of talent, such as Daniel Pemberton and Frederik Wiedmann. And though I wish there were more video game and anime soundtracks on here, I look forward to a day that more are made easily accessible. Until then, this list does a pretty bang-up job of underlining how eclectic and diverse the world of original scores are, and how rewarding it is to take the time to close your eyes and really listen.

Nathaniel Mechaly: Swoon // Martin Phipps: The Aftermath

Hans Zimmer: The Lion King // Craig Armstrong: Mrs. Lowry & Son

Hildur Gudnadottir: Joker //  Adam Taylor: Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Season One

Tyler Bates & Joel J. Richard: John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum // Kyle Dixon & Michael Stein: Stranger Things 3

Alexandre Desplat: Little Women // Geoff Zanelli: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

Honorable Mentions

Cris Velasco: Dauntless, Vol. 1
Daniel Pemberton: The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Vol. 1
Rupert Gregson-Williams: Catch-22
Frederik Wiedmann: The Dragon Prince, Season 1
James Newton Howard: A Hidden Life